The opinion of the court was delivered by: GRIM
On November 9, 1954, there was a collision between a ship and a large barge (which looked like a ship and was towed by a tug) in the Delaware River off the northeastern part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both ship barge were damaged. There are three resulting suits in admiralty, which have been tried together without a jury, and the matter is now before the court following argument on requests for findings of fact and conclusions of law.
The owner of the barge sued the ship, her owner, and her operator, and the shipowner cross-libeled the barge and her owner. The shipowner also sued the tug and her owner. The owner of the barge also sued the tug and her owner, and they impleaded the ship and her owner and operator.
The collision took place a short distance upstream from the Delair bridge, which carries the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad over the river, and at right angles to it, from Philadelphia to Delair, New Jersey. It is a level bridge and was composed of three fixed spans and a 300-foot swing span. Counting from the Pennsylvania side, the swing span was the third of the four spans. The vertical clearance of the spans above the water varied from 48 to 55 feet, depending on the tide. The bridge was about 40 feet wide. A bridge tender employed by the railroad was stationed in a small tower or cab in the middle of the swing span. He opened and closed the span, which pivoted on a pier in its center. In the open position the swing span was at right angles to the rest of the bridge and allowed ships to pass through channels on either side of the pier on which the span rested. The draw channel, extending several hundred yards above and below the bridge, was 300 feet wide. The amount of navigable water or draw, beside the pier which supported the swing span on the western or Pennsylvania side of the open swing span was 122 feet, and on the New Jersey side 120 feet.
The Koppers Coke pier is on the Pennsylvania side 3,000 to 4,000 feet upriver from the bridge. The tip of the Koppers Coke pier was 3,700 feet from the center of the west draw of the bridge.
Going upstream from Petty's Island (below the bridge) to the Koppers Coke pier, the river describes a rough arc to the left. The deep water channels and ranges in the river, going upstream between these two points, are (1) Fisher Point Range, (2) Fisher Channel, (3) The Draw Channel, through the bridge, and (4) Delair Range north of the bridge. They appear on the charts as a continuous series of straight channels of varying length, each 300 feet wide and each bearing to the left of the channel below it. This situation of changing courses presented some difficulty to a ship going upstream and might tempt a pilot heading in that direction to make things easier for himself by cutting corners at the bridge and taking the left-hand draw.
On the day in question the liberty ship Saxon, in charge of her master and a Delaware River pilot who had boarded her off Greenwich (and who had previously piloted only one ship through the Delair bridge) was proceeding upstream to take on cargo at the Koppers Coke pier. Being light, the Saxon drew only 6 feet of water forward and 12 feet aft, and her propeller and rudder were half out of the water. Accompanying her upstream to dock her were the tugs Deinlein and Quaker. The Quaker went well ahead of the Saxon and the Deinlein, and arrived at the Koppers Coke pier to inquire at what time the vessel then docked there, the barge T. J. Sheridan, would be leaving. Those in charge of the Saxon knew that there was a vessel at the Koppers Coke pier and that the Saxon was to take her place there. Because of charter and berth instructions the Saxon had to get to the pier on the tide then running. When the Quaker arrived at the pier she was told that the T. J. Sheridan would be leaving the pier at about 1:30 p.m. The Saxon was apprised of this shortly after 1:00 p.m. The weather that day was clear, but not bright, and visibility was good. There was a 15-mile breeze blowing from the north or northwest.
The barge T. J. Sheridan is 318 feet long. She looks like a ship, with a superstructure and funnel high enough to prevent her from passing beneath the spans of the Delair Bridge. She cannot pass the bridge unless it is open. She was once a ship. She is a barge because her propulsion machinery has been removed. She is able to steer.
Since the bridge had not opened, the tug's master again blew three blasts. He was heading so as to take the tug and tow to the Delair Channel and then in the Draw Channel through the west draw of the bridge. As he got to a point 3,000 feet above the bridge he saw the Saxon 3,000 feet below the bridge and heading upstream at about 6 knots. The tug's master blew one blast to signal a port-to-port passing. There was no answer. The tug and tow and the Saxon continued their respective speeds toward the bridge, and the bridge opened. About 1 1/2 to 2 minutes later, when he had gotten within about 2,500 feet of the bridge, the tug's master blew a second one-blast signal. At this time he saw the Saxon in Fisher Channel, about 2,600 feet below the bridge. The signal was not answered, and the tug stopped her engines. When the tug was about 1,350 feet above the bridge the tug's master blew a third one-blast signal. At this point the Saxon was headed for the west draw and about 900 feet below the bridge. This signal was also unanswered either because the Saxon did not hear the three signals or because she ignored them. The tug and tow had headway and were moving downstream on the tide and on their own momentum toward the west draw, toward which the Saxon was heading.
Observing that his signals were not answered, the tug's master then blew a tow-blast signal (for a starboard-to-starboard passing) and headed for the east draw of the bridge. This likewise remaining unanswered, the tug's master blew a second two-blast signal.
The Saxon first saw the barge (but not the tug, the view of which was obscured by the bridge) when the Saxon was two ship's lengths (about 900 feet) below the bridge. At this time the Saxon blew a one-blast signal. The barge disappeared from the Saxon's view behind the bridge as the Saxon continued upstream. When the Saxon was halfway through the bridge (in the west draw) it saw the tug and tow 800 to 1,000 feet dead ahead. Both vessels blew the danger signal. When the stern of the Saxon had cleared the bridge it ordered its engines full astern. This had the effect of slowing the ship's forward motion and turning her to her right. The tug and tow meanwhile continued on a course toward their left for the east draw of the bridge, at an angle of about 50 degrees to the course of the Saxon. The tug, finding itself unable to keep itself and its tow out of the Saxon's way, cut the hawser to the barge and, free of this burden, managed to skitter past the bow of the advancing Saxon, missing it by 20 or 30 feet, and turned to the right. This brought the tug in line with the bridge pier at the east end of the open draw.
The barge, uncontrolled by the tug, continued on its course and rammed into the side of the Saxon at a point about 900 feet above the Delair bridge. It bounced off, his her again farther astern, and came to rest alongside the west side of the ship, facing upstream.
The Saxon chose the west draw because it allowed her a longer straight-line course through the bridge (because of the curve of the river) than did the east draw. In taking the west draw she violated the inland narrow channel rule.
'In narrow channels
every steam vessel
shall, when it is safe and practicable, keep to that side of the fairway or mid-channel ...